Everything we touch turns to rust

oldphoto3Associated Press says, “Ending a century-old tradition, Eastman Kodak Co. will soon stop making black-and-white photographic paper, a niche product for fine-art photographers and hobbyists that is rapidly being supplanted by digital-imaging systems.”

If you’re thinking, “No problem, I can still get my paper from Ilford,” you might be interested to know that they went into bankruptcy last year. Ilford management saved the company with a buyout, but is it only a matter of time before they go under completely? Another big name in traditional photography materials, Agfa, filed for bankruptcy last month. Polaroid went broke in 2003.

oldphoto2We are increasingly relying on digital methods to produce and store many of the things we create, and that is a frightening prospect. Ever try to open a 20 year old computer program on a modern computer? What’s that, you don’t have a 5.25 floppy drive? Neither do I. Neither does anyone else you know.

And if they do, odds are you can’t connect it to your Powerbook. And even if you did manage to hook it up, it would probably be broken. In 100 years what will our contemporary history consist of? A few years of hard (or futuristic organic plasma) drive backups?

Visionaries recognized very quickly that computers would change everything, but I don’t think anyone expected such dramatic shifts in the way we create music, art, photography, printed materials — everything. Whether these bit-based creations are as ‘good’ as traditional creations isn’t the point. What we are not-so-gradually losing is not only craftsmanship, but something much worse; our collective memory.

oldphoto1The majority of the old silent movies have been lost because they were made and printed on horribly unstable nitrate film stock. The only record we have of most of these films are the still photos, which remain viable and as crisp and bright as they day they were printed.

Do you really believe that the picture of you and your girlfriend standing in front of the Eiffel tower, printed on your Epson, will be anything more than an indistinct blob of light blue ink in 20 years? How about 100 years?

And what if your great great granddaughter wants to reprint it in 100 years? Will she be able to read the CDR you saved it to on any of her equipment? If she goes to the antique store to buy a CDR drive and manages to get it to work, will your disc be anything more than a rust and plastic Frisbee?

That you can still use tools and machines made 200 years ago says something about the people who made them, and the methods they used. What does this mountain of wobbly impermanence that we’re building say about us?

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